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Retail Therapy

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

When American Harry Gordon Selfridge opened his eponymous department store in London in 1909, one of the many attractions of his retail emporium was his Silence Room.

Doubtless constructed for the peace and enjoyment of the gentlemen who accompanied their wives shopping, its design has been long since lost. But as part of the store’s current ‘No Noise’ campaign, which has seen Selfridges stocking iconic items, like Heinz beans, Marmite and Levi Jeans, divested of their brand names- ‘debranded’, the Silence Room has been resuscitated in a contemporary guise.
London architect Alex Cochrane has created his own interpretation of the room on the store’s lower ground floor, accessed via a hugely understated entrance, taking you into an ante space where the first thing you do is drop off your phone and remove your shoes to feel a warm, long-weave carpet beneath your toes. Beyond this, and acoustically buffering the ‘inner sanctum’ of the Silence Room from the store itself is a wide, black-painted corridor wrapping all the way the rectangular space, with visitors wending their way around it, drawn through at every corner by a single bare bulb.
The short architectural journey is very much akin to that of Peter Zumthor’s 2012 Serpentine Pavilion, moving out of the darkness into the light, for the Silence Room itself is an illuminated, pale, neutral, empty space, save for a monolithic perimeter of oak veneered seats and day beds lining its perimeter. Cochrane’s past experience in the offices of Irish architect Tom de Paor and RIBA Manser Medal shortlisted Eldridge Smerin comes through here- it’s a low-budget temporary installation, but the detailing here, even of something like the thick felt lining the seats and walls is crisp and consistent. The whole thing has a feel of an external room at the Alhambra without really referring to it at all.
But despite the felt’s sound absorbing properties, Cochrane’s decision to black-paint rather than cover the ‘noise’ of the store’s suspended ceilings is a nice one, but in not doing so, the extraneous sound bleeds through. This detracts from the design intent, as perhaps, and by Cochrane’s own admission, do the lighting levels. Lower levels of both would have reinforced the sense of isolation that Cochrane was so keen on achieving.
The Silence Room is thus by nature a flawed thing- a physical case to prove, even in our atomized world, how difficult it can be to be alone and isolate yourself from everyday life. When Cochrane’s asked about who might use a space whose entrance is so understated that one could walk straight past it, he hoped the staff, with little space of their own in which to relax during their breaks, might adopt it as theirs too. It might just be because his wife works there; but as a space that, if only for a couple of months, exists in antithesis to the constant bustle of shoppers and ringing of cash tills, I’d like to hold on to that thought.